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Afghans prepare to count votes despite boycott
Updated: 2004-10-10 11:21

Election officials in Afghanistan collected ballots on Sunday from a historic presidential vote which started enthusiastically but ended in turmoil after most of the candidates announced a boycott.

No turnout figures have been released from Saturday's voting, but the desire of people to elect their leader for the first time in their impoverished and rugged Islamic country's history was clear.

From the southern plains to the Hindu Kush mountains and northern steppes, millions turned out to vote despite threats by Taliban fighters to sabotage the election. Attacks on the vote did not materialize but up to 40 people were killed in clashes, including 24 in a U.S. bombing raid.

An election official seals a ballot box after the close of polling stations in the presidential election as an observor looks on in Kabul October 9, 2004. Afghanistan's historic presidential election closed on Saturday without any of the feared large-scale violence but the vote was thrown into turmoil instead by a boycott called by most of the candidates. [Reuters]

But midway through the day all 15 rivals of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai said they were boycotting the poll because a system to prevent voting fraud had failed.

Karzai, who is favorite to win, said his rivals should respect the will of the people.

"I would advise my fellow countrymen, the 15 other candidates, that we must all respect the fact that millions of Afghans came out on foot, in rain and snow and dust and waited for hours to vote," Karzai said.

"That's a tremendous thing for us in this country for the first time, and we must all respect that and wait for the commission to count the votes and make a judgment on the irregularities and then we proceed further from that point."

At issue was indelible ink put on the finger of everyone who voted to ensure they could not vote again. But some election workers used the wrong pen to mark voters, and the ordinary marker ink was quickly washed off.

And with questions over the late and rapid registration of 10.5 million voter cards in a population of about 28 million, there were allegations of voter fraud.

"We strongly condemn today's election which we consider was an illegal election," candidate Abdul Satar Serat said. "It was against Afghanistan's national benefits, it was against democracy in Afghanistan and it was against international law.

"The result that comes out of this election will be an illegal result."

The Joint Election Management Body of U.N. and Afghan experts said the allegations of irregularities were serious and would be investigated.

But it said counting, likely to begin on Monday, would go ahead. Some officials said it could take up to three weeks to settle questions on irregularities.


The election comes three years after the United States began bombing Afghanistan as a prelude to ousting the hardline Islamic Taliban for failing to hand over Osama bin Laden, architect of the Sept. 11 attacks.

About 18,000 U.S.-led troops are in Afghanistan hunting for bin Laden and other militant leaders.

President Bush, facing his own election next month, has claimed the Afghan vote as a foreign policy success and is hoping it can be mirrored in Iraq, where polls are set for January.

"Today's an appropriate day for Americans to remember and thank the men and women of our armed forces who liberated Afghanistan," Bush said as he campaigned in St. Louis.

He did not mention the poll boycott.

The wait for a ruling on irregularities will be worrying for a nation made up of a patchwork of ethnic groups and often warring tribes, and held together for the last three years by Karzai's interim government.

Karzai, is an ethnic Pashtun, the largest ethnic group. His opponents include several commanders from ethnic minority communities who fought the Taliban and have a fearsome reputation for warfare -- including the likes of Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajik leader Yunus Qanuni.

But the candidates are likely to come under pressure from Karzai and the international community to fall in line.

"If these candidates are serious about looking ahead to the parliamentary elections, or looking for a position in the cabinet, or looking to help Afghanistan in the future, there will have to be some compromise," said Afghan affairs expert and author Ahmed Rashid.

Nevertheless, Karzai's position may have been weakened even if he gets the 51 percent vote he needs to avoid a runoff in November. He will have to make concessions to rivals, perhaps the same powerful regional chieftains he would like to sideline.

The absence of any major attacks by the Taliban, who had vowed to disrupt what they described as a U.S.-orchestrated sham, was a big relief.

In the most serious incident, a U.S. bombing raid killed 24 Taliban in the central province of Uruzgan, local officials said. The Afghan Islamic Press quoted residents as saying 14 civilians were also killed, most of them women and children.

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